Friday, October 28, 2011

Why Do So Few Americans Have Passports?

My thirty-eight year-old co-worker has just applied for his first passport, which got me wondering why are passports such a low priority for the majority of Americans?

I was 10 years old when I got my first passport. I was so excited to embark on my first international adventure and getting my passport felt like an initiation into a club of world travelers. I’ve grown up fortunate enough to travel widely and have always appreciated the worldly viewpoints I’ve gained along the way.

Because I value travel so much and know the merits of a multicultural upbringing, I couldn’t wait to get my children their passports. Literally, I couldn’t wait. In fact, I joked that on the way home from the hospital we’d pop round the post office with the brand new baby and get the passport process rolling. Getting my children their passports was a priority to me.

I finally had the resolve when the baby was 2 months old and my oldest was 18 months old. With their passport applications in hand, and one child each in tow, my husband and I entered into a queue at the nearest post office. Five minutes passed, then ten. Finally we reached the front of the line and were called to the counter by the available postal worker. She was a sweet, older Asian woman with compassionate eyes and a patient demeanor. We handed her our heap of paperwork, which she kindly sorted. By then both kids were howling with boredom and unrest. I was clutching onto my twenty-two pound toddler as if he was a rearing bull. Throwing himself about, he was desperate to spring from my control.

The infant had fallen asleep only to be awoken for the obligatory passport photo. There are several requirements for the photo; the subject must be against a white background with eyes fully open, mouth closed with a neutral expression, facing forward, without anything covering the face, etc. For those of you without children you’ll have to take my word for it, this was an impossible task. First, for a baby who cannot sit up or hold his head up on his own, the only conceivable position to be photographed is laying down.

The resourceful postal worker delicately laid flattened white boxes along the floor and draped the baby’s soft white blanket over them. It truly was a MacGyver move. I laid Baby on the ‘photo platform’ aka the floor. As a new mother; anxious, tired, worried and stressed, I nearly fainted at the sight of my newborn on the post office floor. We tried in vain to get a viable photo of the irritated baby. He’d grimace, close his eyes, cry, or look away. At this point I realized, ok the kids may be a bit too young for passports.

Though I now understand that not everything needs to be rushed and that my children don't necessarily need passports as babies, I still don’t identify with people who are perfectly happy to go through their whole lives without the prospect of experiencing faraway lands. In an effort to understand I’ve asked around and have come up with the conclusion that few Americans make world travel, therefore passports, a priority because of money, geography, and the passport application process itself.

Most Americans do not have passports. According to the most recent statistics issued by the Department of State in January of 2011, only 37% of Americans have passports.That means nearly 2 out of 3 Americans can’t even fly to Mexico or Canada, let alone anywhere else in the world.
One explanation is money. According to the last census, the average American household salary is $50,233 per year. After housing (around 32.6% of annual income), other necessary expenses such as children (approximately $10,000 per child per year), gas for one midsized car (about $2,000 a year), car insurance for two drivers (about $1,500 a year), a health plan for a family of four (approximately $3,300 annually), there's not much left for travel.1 According to, airfare to London is around $1,000 per person, paired with hotel accommodation for one week, the average family vacation to Europe costs well over $8,000. Most American families can't afford international trips.

Another reason is geography. The statistic that only 37% (often embellished to be more like 10%) amuses Europeans more than you could imagine. ‘Ignorant, isolated, stupid Americans’ or something to that tune is often accompanied with the figure of just how few Americans own passports. This coming from people who can literally jump on a $30 Ryan Air flight from Scotland to Stockholm and be there in one hour isn’t necessarily fair. European countries are so close together and so culturally diverse that a two hour drive or an hour flight presents opportunities for countless cross-cultural explorations.

Americans however, live on a continent that spans 2269 million acres and is isolated by two oceans. It costs much more time and money for us to travel internationally. Aside from the financial aspect, America itself is geographically and culturally diverse. The U.S. includes most climate types; semi-tropical, tropical, alpine, continental, polar, desert, semi-arid, and sub-arctic. Likewise, Americans can experience different cultures, traditions, and ways of life stateside.

America is called the ‘Melting Pot of the World’ because it is the conglomeration of many people form very different ethnic groups with their own unique traditions and values. America is also, called the ‘Salad Bowl’ of the world because these different cultures remain heterogeneous and retain distinctive cultural characteristics. You can experience a variety of heritages by staying right in the good ol' U.S. of A. Experience the native hula in the Hawaiian Islands, the time-honored tradition of horse breeding and racing in Kentucky, Lobster farming in Maine, Alligator wrangling in Florida, traditional Navajo Hogan homes in Southern Colorado, etc. etc. etc! America the Beautiful is a combo platter and presents innumerable travel opportunities.

If the above isn’t enough to put Americans off world travel, the passport application process is a deterrent to many. This explanation doesn’t really fly with me (if I can do it with two small children, you can do it too) but I do understand the hoops to jump through can be a bit off-putting. The DS-11 form is required, as well as two photos that meet specifications and $165. It can take up to 6-8 weeks to receive your passport after your application is received so make sure to plan ahead.

While I'm not defending those sans passports, I do understand why only a minority of Americans travel abroad. It simply isn’t feasible or desirable for most to travel internationally. That is why I want my children, now part of the 37% of Americans with a passport, to fully appreciate the opportunity that has been given to them and to pursue every international adventure possible...once they get just a bit older.

I'm learning to be more patient and I will take the kids abroad when the time is right. That is to say, I'll take them along when they both acknowledge that they are traveling, when they can appreciate it, and manage such a long journey. I think a good test to know when kids are ready to travel internationally is to take them to the post office to get their passports. If you come out of there needing a stiff drink, they're not ready. Trust me.

There are few pleasures akin to finding yourself lost, in a foreign land, out of your element completely. There is much to experience in America, but you can't imagine how special it is to eat a real croissant in Paris, to see the Whirling Dervish in Istanbul, to samba the night away in Rio de Janeiro, to hear the nightly drums pulsate through the Ghanaian darkness. 'The world is a book and those who don’t travel, read only a page.' My edit to the famous St. Augustine quote… 'the world is a book and those who don’t travel {internationally} read only the first couple of chapters.

Go get yourself a beautiful blue travel document and even if you never leave these enchanted shores you'll own a ticket to endless possibilities.,state,gov